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AP PHOTOS: South Africa: children learn by playing

Tuesday - 5/28/2013, 3:04pm  ET

In this photo taken Tuesday May 21, 2013 children learn to count to ten at a play center at the Dube hostel in Soweto South Africa. The center is provided with educational toys from Cotlands, a local non-profit organization that promotes early learning opportunities for children. Cotlands first opened it's doors 77 years ago offering adoption services for abandoned babies. In 1996 it opened an HIV hospice to address the increased HIV birth rate which claimed 98 children in 2002. In the past three years no child has died leading to the closure of the HIV hospice and now prioritizes it's efforts into advocation for an improvement in early childhood education. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Hundreds of South African children celebrated what some children's advocates call World Play Day on Tuesday, romping with toys at two Johannesburg centers run by a non-profit organization.

The Cotlands organization campaigns for improvement in early education in South Africa, where a 2010 general household survey released by a government-backed statistics agency showed only 32 percent of children under 5 had access to early childhood development programs.

The biggest challenge for the organization is convincing families that it wants to introduce children to early learning skills, and is not a haven for neglected or abused kids, said Lois Moodley, Cotlands' marketing manager. It runs a child care unit that houses abandoned children up for adoption, and coordinates with child welfare services run by the state.

Individuals and day cares with no access to play areas partner with the center, which provides a two-hour morning lesson, meal, playtime and access to a nurse and social worker at no additional cost. It costs the center R25 (about $2.50) daily to provide for each child, which it funds through corporate and private donations. The doors remain open for after-school play activities.

World Play Day is in its 14th year and is commemorated on May 28 as part of an advocacy campaign for early childhood education. It was started by a non-profit group, The International Toy Library Association.

Cotlands used to run an HIV hospice in 1996 to address the increasing problem of children born with the virus that causes AIDS in South Africa, which claimed 98 children at the non-profit group in 2002. The state later stepped up funding for anti-retroviral drugs, and infection rates have dropped.

At the peak of the AIDS crisis, the disease killed a child in the organization's care every week, Moodley said. In the last three years, she said, "we haven't had a single child die."

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